This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. You can see the unedited discussion here. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club click here.
Stephen Elliott: John, first off, maybe talk a little about the genesis of this book and your decision to publish with McSweeney’s a second time.
John Brandon: It’s hard to remember what I had when I began the book, other than Toby. I had Toby, and I had the place. Everything after that I made up as I went along.
As for McSweeney’s, I think they’re terrific to work with. The grass on the other side appears fancier, but it’s not as nourishing. They took my first book out of the slush, so I’ll forever feel warm toward them.
Stephen Elliott: It was so unexpected when Toby kidnapped the girl. How did you make that decision?
John Brandon: As far as I can remember, I got a little too far into the book without anything happening, and so made something happen. My first book was small problem after small problem, and maybe I was bored with that. I get bored easily. I think I wanted a major happening that hung over everything else, rather than a bunch of little things I could continually leave behind. Trust me, Arkansas was easier.
John F: Did you follow the reaction to Citrus County on the Rumpus Book Club blogs and comments? And does its reception outweigh the importance of your own self-satisfaction with what you’ve written?
John Brandon: I never feel too satisfied as a writer. I just go on to the next thing. It’s impossible to judge your own writing. Yes, I read some of the discussion. I think I agreed with most everything that was posted, whether negative or positive. A lot of the issues raised had been raised in my talks with the editor, so I think people were on the right track.
Andréa: I’m really interested in the Donald Justice poem that Uncle Neal partially relays to Toby toward the end of the book. Had you been thinking about this poem before you started coming up with the plot? It seems so perfect to the story to me. And did you intend for there to be a theological theme to the events in the book?
John Brandon: No theological theme intended, though that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
Donald Justice is my favorite poet. I also made allusion to him in Arkansas, and in the novel I just finished writing. I don’t know, I just love the guy. I figure it can’t hurt to quote a great writer.
Matt: I was surprised at how little you gave us about Kaley while she was in the bunker. Did you make a conscious decision to keep the nitty-gritty of Toby’s visits to the bunker unseen?
John Brandon: I never considered giving Kaley point of view, because I couldn’t imagine doing that without it being melodramatic. But I did have scenes in the bunker that I ended up taking out, that now are merely summarized in a line or two. Toby cutting Kaley’s hair, for instance, was a whole scene. In the end, I felt like I had to either do the bunker stuff all the way or very little, so I decided to do it very little. I wanted to keep the focus on Toby and Shelby and Mr. Hibma. Sounds bad, but I didn’t really care about Kaley the way I did about the other main characters.
JenniB: I kept having to remind myself that these kids were supposed to be in middle school. I think at one point Shelby skips school and one of the classes listed is Psychology. O’rly?!? Psychology in middle school? It didn’t seem realistic to me.
John Brandon: I’ve never had a problem with kids in literature seeming smarter or wiser than they should, so I guess I didn’t worry about that. It seems a good place to ask for suspension of disbelief, since the other option is to have characters who are less smart. I agree, though, at times they’re a little quick.
M: Was there any character you wanted to develop further but the plot or pace didn’t allow for?
John Brandon: I had several more scenes with Uncle Neal — explained him a little better maybe — that were cut out. While the decision to cut the bunker scenes was mine alone, the UN stuff that ended up on the floor was pushed by my editor. He keeps me from indulging.
John F: I don’t think this book was about the kidnapping, it was about the reaction to the kidnapping. Any direct narration from the bunker probably wouldn’t have worked for me. It’s like if a 9/11 novel spent forever talking about the crash, instead of the aftermath, which is where there’s more value.
John Brandon: I agree.
Lisa: Did you originally develop the Mr. Hibma murder plot? I felt like it almost ended too briefly.
John Brandon: The thing with Mr. Hibma was, I didn’t know whether he’d go through with the murder or not until right at the end. His mindset was switching back and forth along with my own. I saw a chance at the end to sort of save some folks, so I went for it. In the rough draft, he kills that dog that interrupts him jerking off. In the draft, it happened over and over and then he killed the dog. I think I was setting him up to be able to kill a person, but when he didn’t kill a person I went back and took out the canine murder.
Frances: Toby is a name used in Arkansas; why did you use the name Toby again? Are they related?
John Brandon: My first, failed novel had a character I liked named Toby, and the Toby in Citrus County is a version of him. I also wrote a short story with another version of him, one that uses his powers for good. The name didn’t mean anything to me until I attached it to that original character in that old novel.
Leah: I was wondering whether Toby’s fairly easy and quick decision to kidnap Kaley was supposed to be contrasted by Hibma’s drawn-out thought process in killing his colleague. Did I totally read too much into that?
John Brandon: That’s one of those development that wasn’t intentional, but which I love to see pointed out as if it were.
Martha: Can you talk a bit about the setting? How do you feel about the term Southern Gothic?
John Brandon: I tend to like many books considered Southern Gothic, but I don’t think about being in that category while I’m writing. I think of Flannery O’Connor when I think of Southern Gothic, and nobody’s going to do it better than her.
As far as setting, I like to write about places that I don’t know too well, but that I feel something for. Arkansas was a state I drove through several times, stopping off for a day or two. It didn’t feel like it was finished. It felt like it had real mystery, and I knew I’d set something there. Citrus County was a place I drove through, going back and forth from Gainesville and I always felt the same way, like there was something unknown about it, like it wanted me to fill it in. I don’t know. I get pent-up if I know where every 7-11 is and who lives in every house.
Eric: Once you decided on Citrus County as your location, did you do additional research into the area?
John Brandon: I do as little research as possible. I guess I don’t want to make an obvious error about a famous landmark, but other than that I like to fill things in myself. I don’t feel I owe anything to a place I write about. As soon as I choose it for a setting, it’s mine, all mine.
Sarah: How is it that despite the really awful things so many of your characters do in Arkansas and Citrus County, nobody really gets punished in the usual jurisprudence ways? Seems like everyone just drives off, or whatever.
John Brandon: Yeah, I think I’m always sort of on the side of the Tobys and Kyles. Maybe their lives seem punishment enough, or maybe in the literary garden I’m tending, cops just don’t matter. I guess I’m old fashioned and still have a bad ‘tude towards law enforcement (this makes me a child, I know). I get back at them not by having them killed, but by making them irrelevant. Now that you mention it, I think both Toby and Kyle have a line to the effect of the cops being the least of their problems.
Sarah: Do you think of Toby as being a sociopath?
John Brandon: I can’t say whether Toby’s a sociopath, but I know I never could have thought of him that way. If I thought of him that way, I don’t think I would’ve cared about him enough to write him for a couple hundred pages. It never occurs to me to think of specific psychological disorders. The writer, if no one else, has to think of the characters as more complex than that. I think.
Kevin: In Arkansas, the boys end up on the 19, maybe (I’m not sure) entering Citrus County. Was this book already in your head when you wrote that, or was it a coincidence, or neither?
John Brandon: Not exactly a coincidence. Maybe I was trying the place out. That’s maybe my favorite part of Arkansas — when they drive down the Florida Gulf Coast. Thanks for reading it.
David Gwilliam: While I was reading it, I felt seriously affected by the characters’ austerity, their determined self-destruction. I don’t know if it’s just where I am in my life, but I felt that, for a short time, I needed people to read this book to understand how I was feeling. I guess it connected with larger trends for me. Was it at all like that to write it?
John Brandon: Truth be told, I wasn’t in a great place when I wrote this. I was writing this while working in factories and not getting Arkansas published. I’m sure I was feeling ignored and discouraged, and I think it would be a little too cool to act like things like that don’t affect the outlook of your characters. I’m glad you connected with them.
Stephen Elliott: Where are you living now?
John Brandon: Oxford, Mississippi. Teaching at Ole Miss for the time being.
Stephen Elliott: So you have a familiarity at least with the south. I’ve been in Florida a bunch but I don’t think I would write about it as well.
John Brandon: I grew up in Florida and lived in Memphis and Eastern Tennessee and Virginia. Arkansas was fresh meat for me. Citrus County was old meat I’d kept in the freezer.
Lisa: So is it teaching for now or are you also working on another book?
John Brandon: Teaching mostly, writing a little. Just finished the next book, though, so time for a rest. Watching a ton of soccer.
Eric: Perhaps a good way to wind down would be to tell us a little about your next book?
John Brandon: Next book takes place in New Mexico, another place I’ve only brushed up against. It has too many characters and magic.